Syed Ata Hasnain | Agnipath to transform our military, so give it a chance

Transformation always means wholescale uprooting of the old and planting of the new. Agnipath is a subset of the transformational approach

There is anger in the streets of India, almost as intense as during the caste-based agitation in 2015. That agitation too was about “rozi-roti” (daily bread) and this too is the same; the question of jobs. With pragmatic intent, the Central government has assumed responsibility for the creation of additional jobs in the country. One of the ways is by changing the terms and conditions for recruitment in the armed forces. The aim is financial saving by reducing the pension outflow, achieving a younger age profile of service personnel, compensating enhanced technological footprint by optimising manpower, bringing terms and conditions in sync with international norms and understanding, and giving more young people a chance to serve the nation.

All this needs to be explained properly. It is a complex issue as are most human resource management issues concerning the Armed Forces.

When a system existing for 75 years is suddenly altered and that too drastically, there is bound to be consternation, bewilderment and disappointment if the new initiatives are not clearly understood. We need to be clear that there is no cleaner and more motivating job in the country than the profession of soldiering. Thus far all those selected to be soldiers followed a career path which lasted at least 15 years and could take them up to 30 years with a pension to boot (for life), with ownership of welfare and medical treatment also taken by the Armed Forces. Both the comfort level of those selected and the aspirations of those seeking to join the Armed Forces were extremely high. The “Agnipath” scheme has probably upset that comfort level. The youth and many others are perceiving the scheme with limited imagination and unable to perceive the positives for them in the scheme. Before explaining that, it’s also important to mention an important observation. The Agnipath recruitment scheme was probably supposed to be initiated in 2020 or so. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented that happening for two years and created a set of youth who probably have got left behind due to becoming overage. The government has been quick to respond when this was probably pointed out and has shown a proclivity towards flexibility and reason by enhancing the upper limit of the entry age from 21 to 23 years.

That should rest some of the angst although it will increase the number of aspirants for the 46,000 recruitment slots that have been announced.

The average age of the soldier at the level of “other ranks” is being reported as 32, which many concede is way too high and must be reduced. This was one of the factors which probably influenced the terms and conditions to make it contractual for four years, including a 24- weeks period for entry level basic training (down from 36 weeks).

We will in due course hear more about specialised training for the technical and equipment-intensive components in the case of the Army. If that too is kept at anything between 12-24 weeks, the availability of an “Agniveer” soldier to his unit will be reduced to about three years. In those three years count the leave period, and effectively a trained soldier in which the government is investing a fair amount would be available for physical duty for just about two years and six months. The question being asked by many is whether this is sufficient bang for the buck being invested. In the spirit of feedback and flexibility with which the government has correctly responded, it could reconsider the period of engagement. Seven years would be a workable duration; it would mean a little less than half the current contractual period for colour service, of course minus the pension and medical benefits. The latter are linked to the financial aspects for which this scheme has evolved in the first place. The impact would be that the intended reduction in average age would not take place. The latter could be acceptable to the armed forces even if it came down marginally below 30 years.

Another factor being pointed out is that the scheme is being rolled out without a trial, a pilot project or a test bed, which is the usual system to optimise the proposal by taking full feedback from the ground and bringing to light the glitches. Perhaps it’s the two-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that there was no recruitment for that period which has triggered the decision to go ahead without a testbed trial. This issue can be overcome simply by ensuring that the first two years of the implementation are treated as a pilot scheme, with various formations and units serving in different operational environments nominated to give focused feedback with recommendations. The flexibility shown in amending the age limit for 2022 gives a lot of hope that feedback from the ground will be given a serious look.

It is battle effectiveness that we are most concerned about. Any decision on the management of the Armed Forces has ultimately to weigh all innovations and changes against the overall impact on operational effectiveness or the ability to achieve victory in the battlefield for the nation. That is what the analyses of the “Agnipath” scheme should be looking at in great detail.

Different forms of modelling should be used, factoring awareness, skill and technological proficiency, training and motivation to determine whether any compromise will take place. While on this, some observers are pointing out that the Armed Forces may have bitten off too much in terms of the changes that are being attempted, from HR-related complete change in the recruitment policy to “atma nirbharta” in terms of weapons and equipment and many doctrines needing organisational restructuring, changes in order of battle and redeployment, and finally “theatrisation” there is a sea change afoot in India’s security domain. All this is happening in the face of live and developing threats from both China and Pakistan and the continuing internal security issues. However, when cumulative threats are building against the nation, it is perhaps best to assume a transformational approach to national security. Transformation always means wholescale uprooting of the old and planting of the new. “Agnipath” is a subset of the transformational approach.

A progressive feedback-induced system to implement it will perhaps meet the requirements, but first, the angst among India’s youth population should be doused through a more comprehensive information campaign to convince them to give the new scheme a chance.

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